Recording the past no one will speak

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In 1983, Argentina created the Comision Nacional para la Desaparicion de Personas to explore the true story of what happened during seven years of military dictatorship. According to Priscilla Hayner, an American consultant on human rights, it was the first successful "truth commission."

In recent years, that shorthand sobriquet has become an important addition to the human rights lexicon. It refers to official, ad hoc bodies established not simply to report on state terror, target perpetrators, enumerate abuses, and identify victims, but to become instruments for engaging the public in discussions of heinous acts and repressive actions. These groups seek ways to prevent recurrence, encourage reform, and foster reconciliation.

"Unspeakable Truths" is Hayner's chronicle and assessment of the work of truth commissions around the world. It is the end product of five years of research, visits to many of the countries where such bodies have been established, and hundreds of interviews. She has spoken with government-appointed commissioners, international bodies, nongovernmental agencies, human rights advocates, academics, victims of state-sponsored terror, and policymakers charged with attempting to right historic wrongs.

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Hayner writes in an accessible, straightforward style that is at once comprehensive, compassionate, and utterly candid. She challenges many widely held assumptions about the ends and means of truth commissions. She points to the tendency to expect more from them than they could ever possibly deliver.

She also notes that, despite great differences of circumstance, many of the most difficult problems confronted by such quasi-legal bodies seem to be almost universal. This second point underscores the fact that there is much to be learned from others' experiences, making her comparative approach particularly useful.

An added bonus to this richly detailed book is the author's notes and appendices. The latter consist of easy-to-read charts summarizing the histories and specific characteristics of the 21 truth commissions in Hayner's study, their findings and recommendations, as well as summaries of other commissions that probed long-past injustices uncomfortably familiar to Americans: the treatment of aboriginal peoples in Australia and Canada, and the incarceration of Japanese American citizens in the early days of World War II.

While much has been written about specific truth commissions, until now no one has examined them in the aggregate, summarizing their developments and specifying the difficulties inherent in such undertakings.

In "Unspeakable Truths," Hayner presents illustrative case studies of truth commissions in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, and South Africa, and a number of briefer examples.

She then addresses the more general problems of defining, seeking, and finding "truth." Her book highlights the significance not only of cultural differences but of such idiosyncratic factors as the personalities and the personal priorities of commission leaders in determining approaches and emphases.

Playing the dual role of researcher and practitioner, Hayner comments on what seem to her some problematic practices in the truth-seeking quest. For example, she notes that many terror campaigns cannot endure - or, I would add, be stopped - without external assistance in terms of money and war materiel. Despite this complicity, though, most truth commissions focus on domestic strife, paying little attention to the roles of such outsiders.

"Unspeakable Truths" begins with a first-person account of an encounter with a Rwandan governmental official. It was in 1995, a year after a genocidal conflict in which 500,000 people were slaughtered. Hayner is speaking to a man who has lost 17 members of his own family, yet he says that each day more of what happened is being forgotten. The author asks him, "Do you want to remember or to forget?" His response, a most difficult Hobson's choice, proves both prelude and coda to Hayner's study.

"We must remember what happened in order to keep it from happening again," he says. Then he adds, "But we must forget the feelings, the emotions, that go with it. It is only by forgetting that we are able to go on."

But what about punishing those guilty for the atrocities in her informant's Rwanda and all the other states discussed? Who is responsible for that? Such questions form a kind of subtext.

In a chapter titled "Truth vs. Justice: Is It a Trade-Off?" Hayner notes that truth commissions are not prosecutorial forums or judicial assemblies and should not substitute for them in taking action against known perpetrators. However, they may prove useful in offering advice on legal remedies in order to further their primary goals of resolving conflicts and moving forward.

Peter I. Rose, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Smith College, is completing a new book, 'The Dispossessed: An Anatomy of Exile.'

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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